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Ashley Cerasole’s mother continues to search for answers about her daughter’s death.

“I've been investigating from day one,” Michelle Rocheleau said. “There's a lot of questions in this case, but there's some things that just don't add up.”

Cerasole, a 29-year-old woman with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder and epilepsy, left an adult care facility in Gloucester on the afternoon of December 3, 2020.

She was missing for more than a month.

Surveyors found her dead in a swamp on January 22, 2021 less than two miles away. A state medical examiner’s report said the cause of death could not be determined.

But it’s possible she was at risk while she lived at Cary Adult Home, an assisted living facility in Gloucester with 60 residents. It provides care for people with severe mental illness, which is what brought Cerasole there in September 2020.

According to state records, Cary has a record of serious safety violations, including an instance of a resident who left the facility and died eight months before Cerasole did the same.

In an interview with the Daily Press, Rocheleau said the isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic was difficult for her daughter. Rocheleau hoped staying at Cary would be good for Cerasole.

“I did the best I could,” Rocheleau told WHRO. “I mean, what could any parent do? Step up and help your kid as much as you can.”

Gloucester Sheriff Darrell W. Warren Jr. declined to comment on the case, writing in an email that it was still an active investigation.

He issued a statement to the media in May emphasizing there was no indication a crime had occurred in Cerasole’s death.

A Troubling Record

Inspectors from the Virginia Department of Social Services (DSS) monitor facilities like Cary to ensure they comply with state regulations.

A DSS inspector investigated Cary after John Cavender, a 61-year-old man, wandered out of the facility last March and stayed out overnight.

Cary’s staffers told the official they knew Cavender was out of the building as late as 11 p.m. The temperature dipped into the 40s with winds up to 20 mph that night.

The next morning, a resident found Cavender lying face down on a path in the woods behind Cary Adult Home.

According to the Virginia medical examiner, he died of “hypothermia with hypertension and alcohol abuse contributing.”

A state inspector determined Cary violated regulations related to staff training and resident supervision.

According to the violation, three staffers at Cary told DSS they didn’t actually know what protocol was when a resident didn’t return to the facility at night.

Following Cavender’s death the facility held a training and verified that “all staff have signed they know what to do in the event a missing resident occurs.”

Before Cavender's death, Cary had a cluster of low-level violations like poor maintenance, or missing documents or required signs.

As time went on, the state documented incidents of violent residents, serious injuries among residents that weren't reported to authorities, medication mismanagement, staff who didn’t disclose their criminal records, several cases of sexually inappropriate behavior by a resident, and staff failing to keep accurate records of residents’ allergies and mental health needs.

In 2020, as the pandemic hit, the number of violations at Cary more than doubled from the previous year -- from less than 20 to over 40 violations.

In addition, authorities often had to conduct inspections by phone, without being able to go to the building.

Ashley Arrives

In September 2020 Ashley Cerasole entered the facility.

“My daughter was very, very special,” Rocheleau said. “She was very loving and very caring. She had disabilities. But she had a big heart and she was very giving, sometimes too much.”

Rocheleau said her daughter made friends easily and loved singing and poetry.

Cerasole needed medication to control the symptoms of her illnesses and she needed supervision, according to her mother.

An assessment done shortly before Cerasole came to Cary also said she might wander from the facility.

Photo courtesy of Michelle Rocheleau 

Ashley Cerasole was missing from the assisted living facility for weeks before she was found dead. 

According to DSS records, the facility didn’t record this need for supervision on its service plan to care for Cerasole, a violation of state regulations.

Rocheleau declined to say much about the facility because she is considering legal action.

But she did say it was clear her daughter wasn’t happy at the facility.

On October 17, 2020, Cerasole left Cary Adult Home for the first time.

Gloucester sheriff’s deputies intercepted her about a half mile away on Main Street sometime after 1 a.m., according to a police email provided by Rocheleau.

According to the email, Cerasole told a deputy she was scared of a male staff member. She told another deputy a staff member harassed her.

The Disappearance 

Cerasole left Cary Adult Home for the second time on December 3, 2020.

It’s not known exactly when she exited the building. In the sheriff’s incident report provided to WHRO by Rocheleau, a staff member said she saw Cerasole asleep in her bed at 3 p.m.

Media accounts and surveillance footage put Cerasole more than a half a mile away from the facility by 3:30pm.

A staffer noticed that Cerasole wasn’t at dinner at 5 p.m.

The staff member searched for her, and at some point she called the police. A Gloucester sheriff’s deputy was dispatched more than three hours later, at 8:10 p.m.

The incident report doesn’t say exactly when Cary Adult Home notified the police.

When the deputy arrived, according to the incident report, Cary staff couldn’t describe the clothes Cerasole was wearing, and they didn’t know what door she’d used to exit.

The deputy asked Cary staff to review video footage. They told the deputy they wouldn’t be able to finish reviewing it that night.

Another deputy reported  he’d seen someone matching Cerasole’s description walking on Main Street after 4:30 p.m.

He had a description of her clothing, and authorities began their search.

“The police stressed to me that -- they said this a number of times -- that the facility did not call the police in enough time,” Rocheleau said. “Why didn't they call the police? They've been looking for her at the facility. But why didn't they call the police?”

According to state records, the state inspector didn’t find out about the October incident or Ashley’s final disappearance until more than two weeks after her body was found.

After every violation, DSS wants the facility to create a “Plan of Correction” that it will follow to fix things.

Cary’s plan of correction following Cerasole’s death was to review the individual service plans of its residents regularly.

“I wish I removed her from that place sooner,” Rocheleau said in a text message. “I have to live with that [for the] rest of my life.”

Cary Adult Home did not respond to multiple requests for comment.